U.S. President Donald Trump had invited leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to meet in Las Vegas after he did not attend a summit with the group in Bangkok in November. Though the US has decided to postpone a meeting with leaders of Southeast Asian countries it had planned to host on March 14 due to worries about the coronavirus outbreak, it was a much anticipated event since India refused to join RCEP last year.
And of course, the manner in which ASEAN’s Code of Conduct (CoC) negotiations with China and how the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) of US shall play out with each other, given the strengthening of the Quad.
American withdrawal from the Asia Pacific
Under Obama, there was a notable shift in the US strategy in the Asia-Pacific. In 2011, State Secretary Hillary Clinton noted that the US must be “smart and systematic” when investing its time and resources. “One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will, therefore, be to lock in a substantially increased investment, be it diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise, in the Asia-Pacific region.”
The “Asia Pivot” (later called the “rebalance”) to Asia involved deepening and strengthening alliance commitments with US treaty allies including Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines, and building new partnerships with Southeast Asian states including US commitment to maintain 60 percent of its global naval assets in the region.
Trump’s Indo-Pacific policy was indicated with a formal withdrawal from a long planned trade deal with Pacific Rim nations. Trump’s decision to pull out of the TPP, his focus on reducing bilateral trade deficits, and his interest in only forging new bilateral trade deals have had widespread implications for US Southeast Asia economic and political relations, with the latter no longer considering the former a predictable trade partner.
This led China to fill the vacuum in a rush, signing a plethora of deals and projects in a jiffy. It also entailed China investing multitudes of rogue loans given to such countries, fully aware of the frail chances of ever recovering. China understood the situation as a strategic withdrawal of US from Asia Pacific and thereby recovery of such non payments, in terms of strategic and economic real estate available in these ASEAN countries.
Code of Conduct (CoC)
China’s negotiations with ASEAN
Chinese actions in conflicts over Taiwan and the South China Sea are reflective of not only China’s rise but also its growing hegemonic stance, and all of the ASEAN could see it. Current it was evident that Chinese policy, which features a strong push to unilaterally consolidate claims that grant China-exclusive privileges, was not a movement toward a “common and inclusive security order.”
Predictably, Beijing has always demanded that any negotiated settlement of the South China Sea dispute must take the form of separate bilateral talks between China and each of the other claimants (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan; Chinese claims may also encompass Indonesia’s Natuna Islands). This is presumably to maximize Chinese leverage over invariably weaker partners, in a subtle form of arm twisting.
None is more flabbergasting than it China should claim of ownership over the Sea China Sea because ancient Chinese mariners sailed through it.
With the US coming to party in the South China Sea in 2020, on 20 July 2011, China was forced to have talks with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam and agreed to a set of preliminary guidelines on the implementation of the DOC (Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea) to help resolve disputes. This translated to China and ASEAN to actively advance the consultations in terms of the Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea,” with the forecast that the COC will be completed by 2021.
However American withdrawal and disinterest in ASEAN put the CoC at the backburner by China, which felt it could have its way in the region.
The way ahead for US-ASEAN
Trump called for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) in his remarks to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, in November 2017, WITH Indo-Pacific defined as stretching from “the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States.
Was it simply economic and China oriented? In a July 2018 speech, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the FOIP initiatives goals: When we say “free” Indo-Pacific, it means we all want all nations, every nation, to be able to protect their sovereignty from coercion by other countries. At the national level, “free” means good governance and the assurance that citizens can enjoy their fundamental rights and liberties. When we say “open” in the Indo-Pacific, it means we want all nations to enjoy open access to seas and airways. We want the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes. This is key for international peace and for each country’s attainment of its own national aims.
Interesting part comes ahead, while he describes economically, “open” means fair and reciprocal trade, open investment environments, transparent agreements between nations, and improved connectivity to drive regional ties, because these are the paths for sustainable growth in the region. Essentially the US deems Chinese OBOR agreements to not be conforming to International Trade Practices and with the guidelines acceptable to the World Bank. Hence with one stroke, in US eyes, OBOR loans and such bribe ridden mala fide agreements have been rendered null and inconsequential in the region. This has been well verified, in the case of Sri Lanka and Myanmar, where China had to renegotiate, due to backdoor US support on the issue.
With FOIP, recent developments saw Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines hardening their stand on the South China Sea issue. The boldness of ASEAN against China can be gauged by statements like “Last February in an unprecedented move, the government-controlled Vietnamese media referred to China in relation to the 40th anniversary of the China Vietnam border war as the invader, and the conflict as a war,” Al Jazeera had said.
Since then Vietnam remains a vocal opponent of China on this issue. Military maneuvers by the Chinese navy have not been able to intimidated Vietnamese fishing and survey ships and Indonesia has become more assertive in exerting authority over its territory in the South China Sea.
On July 30, 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced “$113.5 million in new U.S. initiatives to support foundational areas of the future: digital economy, energy, and infrastructure,” and indicated that this represented “just a down payment on a new era in U.S. economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. This spells the seriousness of Trump towards the FOIP.
Washington was gearing up for the summit set for March 14 in Las Vegas. Bilateral meetings between U.S. President Donald Trump and ASEAN leaders were also being planned.
“China is actively employing a whole-of-government approach to absorb Southeast Asian nations into its sphere of influence by sowing intra-ASEAN divisions, driving wedges between U.S. alliances, and using economic coercion,” said Joshua Fitt from the Washington based Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which echoes the US government policies.
Senior officials from Quad: the United States, Australia, India, and Japan met in June 2018 and “reiterated strong support for ASEAN centrality and ASEAN-led mechanisms” evidently and obviously in the evolving regional architecture. Also, there has been a heightened effort to deepen other regional partnerships, and in March 2018, the USS Carl Vinson made the first visit to Vietnam, a first by a U.S. aircraft carrier since the Vietnam War.
While Trump’s invite to ASEAN to Las Vegas stands postponed, due to Coronavirus threat, the recent support of the US, to ASEAN is indicative of the seriousness with which the US shall pursue it in the Indo Pacific. With the tactical withdrawal from the TPP, China has been lured into over exerting its loans, Now the US is shadow boxing that mistake, not with a heroic booming upper cut, but with the quiet movements of a seasoned switch hitter, that it has been all along in the region.
19 Mar 20/Thursday Written By: Fayaz